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STALKING THE WILD GRAPE
IT was to be a moonlight night, yet the moon was on the wane and would not rise until eleven. It seemed as if the pasture birds missed the moon, or expected it, for beginning with the June dusk at eight o'clock one after another made brief queries from red cedar shelter or greenbrier thicket. One or two indeed insisted on pouring forth snatches of morning song, sending them questing through the darkness for several minutes, then ceasing as if ashamed of having been misled.
The cuckoo, of course, you may hear often on any warm night, springing his watchman's rattle chuckle from the denser part of the thicket. But for the brown thrush to be announcing morning every half-hour through the darkness was an absurdity to be accounted for only on the theory that here was a gay young blood who was practising for a moonlight serenade. And when the moon did come, touching the tops of the pines first with a fine edging of gold, dropping a luminous benediction to the birches and diffusing it lower and lower till the whole pasture was gold and dusk, the ecstasy of the thrush knew no limit. He poured forth a perfect uproar of liquid melody, punctuated with such hurroos and whoops of delight that he made me wonder if his lady love would like such college-song methods of serenading.
I sat up from my couch on the green moss under the huckleberry bush to listen. The people of the pasture seemed to have trooped up to the call of the music. The red cedars, the birches, the huckleberry bushes in the daytime have individuality indeed, but in the nighttime they have personality. They loom up in spots where by day you did not notice them at all. Some red cedars stand erect and stiff as military men might on sentinel duty, others gowned in black like monks of old group together and seem to consult, while all about them mingling in gracious beauty are the birches and the berry bushes, -- the birches slender, dainty aristocrats gowned in the thinnest of whispering silk, the berry bushes sturdy and comfortable in homespun. You are half afraid of the cedars, they are so black and seem to watch you so intently, more than half in love with the birches, so graceful and enticing, as they lean toward you in their diaphanous drapery, but it is the berry bushes shouldering up to greet you in hearty bourgeois welcome that make you feel at home.
I listened to the thrush, but soon I found that I had only one ear to do it with, for on the other side of me a bird was rapidly approaching with greater and equally persistent clamor. It was a whip-poor-will, seemingly roused to rivalry by the challenge of the thrush. So far as I know the thrush paid no attention to him but simply kept up his song in the birch near by, but the whippoor-will came up little by little till he seemed almost over my head, and I could hear plainly the hoarse intake of breath between each call. Very brief gasps these intakes were, for the whip-poor-wills fairly tumbled over one another without cessation.
Now the bird went away for a distance, again he came back, but always he kept up his call, while the thrush never wavered from his perch in the birch. A dozen times I waked in the night to find them still at it, and when the gray of dawn finally silenced the whip-poor-will, the thrush let out like a tenor that has just got his second wind. He sang up the dawn and the grand matutinal bird chorus, and the last I heard of him he was still sitting on his perch greeting the gold of the morning sun with melodious uproar.
A blind man who knows the pasture should know what part of it he is in and the pasture people that are about him of a June morning simply by the use of his other senses. The birds he would know by sound, the shrubs and trees by smell. Each has its distinctive set of odors differing with differing circumstances, but never varying under the same conditions. The barberry fruit when fully ripe, especially if the frost has mellowed it, has a faint, pleasant, vinous smell which, with the crimson beauty of the clustered berries, might well tempt our grandmothers to make barberry sauce, however much the men folk might declare that it was but shoe-pegs and molasses.
The blossoms are equally beautiful in their pendant yellow racemes which seem to flood the bush with golden light, but the odor of the blossoms, though the first sniff is sweet, has an after touch which is not pleasant. Crush the leaves as you pass and you shall get a smell as of cheap vinegar with something of the back kick of a table d'hote claret. Crush the leaves of the swamp azalea and get a strawberry-musk flavor that is faint but delightful. Sniff as you shoulder your way through the high blueberry bushes and you may note that the crushed leaves have a certain vinous odor like one of the flavors of a good salad. The blossoms of the high-bush blackberry, whose thorns tear your hands, have a faint and endearing smell as of June roses that are so far away that you get just a whiff of them in a dream. The azalea that a month later will make the moist air swoon with sticky sweetness now gives out from its leaves something that reminds you of wild strawberries that you tasted years ago. It is as delicate and as reminiscent as that.
Under your foot the sweet-fern breathes a resin that is “like pious incense from a censer old,” the bayberry sniffs of the wax of altar candles lighted at high mass in fairy land, and over by the brook the sweet-gale gives a finer fragrance even than these. There are but three members of this family, -- the Myrica or Sweet-Gale family, -- yet it is one that the pasture could least afford to miss. The fragrance of their spirits descends like a benediction on all about them, and I have a fancy that it is steadily influencing the lives of the other pasture folk. I know that the low-bush black huckleberry, the kind of the sweet, glossy black fruit that crisps under your teeth because of the seeds in it, grows right amongst sweet-fern whenever it can. Now if you crush the leaves of the low-bush black huckleberry you shall get from them a faint ghost of resinous aroma which is very like that of the sweet-fern. Thus do sweet lives pass their fragrance on to those about them. Many of these familiar odors had come to me during the night as I half slept and half listened to the vocal duel between the thrush and the whip-poor-will, but as I sprang to my feet at sunrise from my dent in the pasture moss I got a whiff of another which seemed more subtly elusive, more faintly fine than these, perhaps because, though I seemed to recognize it, I could not name it.
Many things I could name as I have named them here, but this escaped me. It had in it some of that real fragrance, a joy without alloy, which you get in late July or August from the clethra, the white alder which lines the brook and the pond shore with its beautiful clusters of odoriferous white spikes.
But by no stretch of the imagination could I bring the white alder to bloom in early June. Moreover, it had only a suggestion of that in its purity of fragrance. There was more to this. There was a spicy, teasing titillation that made me think of bubbles in a tall glass, and it is a wonder that that thought did not name it for me, but it didn't.
The sun was tipping the dew-wet bush tops with opal scintillations that soak you to the skin as you shoulder through them, but that did not matter; I was dressed for it, and so on I went, taking continual shower-baths cheerfully, but always with that teasing, alluring scent in my nostrils. Now and then I lost it; often it was confused and overridden by other stronger odors. Once I forgot it.
That was when I sprang over a stone wall and landed fairly in the middle of a covey of partridges made up of a mother bird and what seemed a small whirlwind of young ones no bigger than my thumb. My plunge startled the mother so that she thundered away through the bushes, a thing that a mother partridge, surprised with her young, will rarely do. At the same moment the young scurried into the air. It was like a gust among a dozen brown leaves, whirling them breast high for a moment and then letting them settle to earth again. You go to pick them up and they surely are brown leaves!
It is as if some woodland Merlin had waved his wand: They were young partridges, they are brown leaves. It is as quick as that.
Yet this was my lucky morning, for one of these little birds failed to dematerialize, and I noted him wriggling down under a clump of woodland grass and picked him up. He made pretense of keeping still for a moment, then wriggled in fright in my hand, a pathetically silent, frightened, bright-eyed little chick, mostly down. How his few feathers helped him to make as much of a flight as he had is beyond my conception. He must have mental-scienced himself up into the air and down again.
The mother bird, dancing and mincing along
Holding him gently, I pursed my lips and drew the air sharply in between lips and teeth. The result was a peculiar squeaking chirp which I have often used on similar occasions with many different birds and almost always with success. Then there came a sudden materialization. Out of the atmosphere, apparently, appeared the mother bird, dancing and mincing along toward me till she was very near, her head up, her eyes blazing with excitement, her wings half spread and her feathers fluttering.
It was a sort of pyrrhic dance by a creature as different from the usual partridge as may be conceived. It lasted but a moment; at a sudden, indescribable note from the mother bird the fledgling gave an answering jump and slipped from my relaxed hold, fluttered and dematerialized before my eyes just as the mother bird went into nothingness in the same way. Truly, there are bogies in the wood, for that morning I saw them at their work. It was the illusion and evasion of old Merlin; no less.
Going on down the pasture, I picked up the musky scent of the swamp I was approaching, instead of the thing I sought. The scent of the swamp is cool with humid humus, musky with the breath of the skunk-cabbage, woodsy with that quaint exhalation which you get from the ferns, our oldest form of plant life, still retaining and lending to you as you pass the odor of the very forest primeval. These are the base, and they carry the lighter and daintier odors as ambergris, a vile and dreadful but very strong smell, carries the dainty scents of the perfumer, and just as they in turn give you no hint of the ambergris which is their base, so the odor of the swamp gives you little hint of these three but is a delight of its own.
Beyond the little corner which I must cross in the straight line I had taken was a small hillock of open pasture, fringed on the farther side with alder and button bush which stand ankle deep in the water of the pond. Here on the little knoll daisies sent out that faint, hay-like smell which is common to most of the compositae. The squaw weed in the meadowy edge between the swamp and the knoll had given me the same fragrance. But standing on the top of the knoll while the soft morning wind swept the daisy fragrance by me knee high, I caught, head high, the elusive, alluring odor that I was seeking. It led me down to the pond side and called me, dared me, to come on. Why not? I was dressed for it, and I was wet to the skin with the drench of the morning dew already.
The cove was but a hundred yards across, and I stood on the bank wishing to note carefully the direction I must take. The lazy morning wind drifted across, just kissing the water here and there, leaving the surface for the most part smooth. I wet my finger and held it up, dropping it cool side down till it was level. It pointed exactly toward the opposite point at the other side of the cove and between it and the next one. There a low, sloping, broad flat rock hung with a canopy of green leaves was the dock at which I might land conveniently, and I splashed resolutely into the water, scaring almost to death with my plunge a big green frog that was sunning himself on a little foot-square cranberry bog island. He gave a shrill little yelp of terror and dived before I could.
Singular thing that little half squeak, half screech, of alarm. I have heard a girl make an almost identical sound when coming suddenly on a particularly fuzzy and well-developed caterpillar. Rabbit, dog, and bird have it as well; indeed, it seems to be the one word which is common to all races and to all articulate creatures. Like the scent of brakes it began with the beginning of things and has survived all the changes of creation.
The muskrat ferry is a pleasant one. Little dancing sprites of mist, the height of your head above water, tiptoe off the surface and slip away as you swim toward them. You may see these only of a morning when you take the muskrat ferry. They are invisible from the shore or from the height of a canoe seat.
It is probable that just as some of the pasture people make sounds too shrill or too soft for our human ears hear to them, so there are other things about the pasture less visible even than the little mist folk that we might see were our sight fine enough or soft enough.
Two-thirds of the way across a little puff of wind sparkled its way out from the shore to meet me. It brought with it, full and rich, the fragrance which had led me so long; and as I looked at the broad leaves overhanging my rock port, their under sides and the young shoots covered with a soft, cottony down, I laughed to think that I should not have known what it was I sought. For it was there in plain sight; indeed the rock was canopied with it.
A long time I sat on that rock on the farther side of the cove, the June sun warming me, the fragrance of the fox-grape blooms over my head alluring, soothing, wrapping my senses dreamy delight.
He who would attempt to classify and define the perfume that drifts through the pasture from the bloom of the fox-grape may. I only know that it makes me dream of pipes of Pan playing in the morning of the world, while all the wonder creatures of the old Greek myths dance in rhythm and sing in soft undertones, and the riot of young life bubbles within them.
The pasture, indeed, could ill afford to lose the pious incense from the sweet-fern's censer, the fragrance of the altar candles of the bayberry, and the subtle essence of the sweet-gale. These are the holy incense of the church of out-of-doors, and it is well that we should always find them when we come to worship; yet he who would dare all to steal for one elusive moment the fragrance of the deep heart of delight, let him come to the pasture on just that rare, brief period of all the year when the fox grape sends forth its perfume.
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